What to do when you're completely and totally wrong about your child
I spent an entire day confused, emotional and frustrated about a single problem with something my son did that turned out to not even be a real issue. What came out of it however was a very valuable lesson I'll never forget, not only because the real issues are still ahead, but because I love my son and I deeply respect and value his teachers.
My older son, now six, brings home a weekly reading assignment from school. It's a basic reading exercise that takes him about 2-3 minutes to read through, each time pushing his reading skills just a little bit farther. We typically practice it 3-4 times, so that each time his enunciation and intonation gets just a little bit better and more natural.
This past Friday, we got up a little early and my son read to me right after breakfast. The day was going great, we were ahead of schedule, and he still had a half hour of "free time" ahead of him before we normally leave for school. After he finished reading, he handed me his Reading Log, a half-sheet form provided by his teacher. On the form I fill out the date, the title of what he read, my initials and any comments for the teacher. I was about to complete a row for the day's reading when I noticed something funny (see the above picture - my initials and teachers' initials blurred for privacy):
- The last row was dated February 43
- The title and comments were completely random squiggles
- And my initials were there. And the teacher's.
My brain was semi-stuck in a loop trying to figure this all out. So I just asked my son in a regular voice, "Did you write this?" To which he replied, with just the slightest bit of hesitation as if he were wondering if he were somehow in trouble, "Yes, papa."
That's when memories came flooding back. Things I shouldn't have done, at places and times I shouldn't have done them. I remember how things felt. Frustrated, burned, whatever. The point is, as a child I didn't have parents giving me the kind of careful attention I devote to my son daily. And I made decisions sometimes out of frustration because of that. So why would my son carefully forge my initials on a homework sign-off sheet? I mean, seriously- the forgery of my initials was excellent. I honestly wondered how I could have signed off on that. But I didn't. It wasn't me.
What did I do wrong that led him to this? I thought.
Then I made the first mistake: I got mad. I responded to my son's response and honesty with a mini lecture on dishonesty and forgery of someone's signature. I even mentioned people going to jail over fraud. He looked terrified. His eyes started to tear up. Maybe it was just proximity to me, but now mama was mad too, disappointed that he would do something like this. His good morning suddenly went completely sideways.
On the way to school he apologized to me no less than five times. He definitely knew that this was a bad thing.
At school his main teacher was not yet there, but in being consistent with the critical process of parent-teacher communication I swear by, I decided to approach his other teacher off, out of earshot by my son, to share what had happened that morning. This was when I received surprise #2. The teacher already knew about it.
Apparently, some of the other kids were doing the same thing. Now I was even more confused and frustrated. I tried my best to remain calm and objective, and explained to her what I had explained to my son: In our house, forgery is not okay, and I wanted to make sure we were on the same page about this.
My son at this point was already having fun with the other students and well into what was going to be a great day for him. "Bye papa!" he shouted, smiling as if nothing had happened. I felt relieved in a way that his mood was good. His teacher acknowledged me and said she would talk with my son's main teacher that day as well.
Earlier that morning, before we left for school, I sent a brief email to his teacher about the issue with the above picture. While he was still in school, she called me to talk about what had happened. As usual, she listened patiently and carefully. I explained everything, including how I felt right then: Confused, unsure, and heavy with guilt if I was in any way wrong in condemning my son's actions earlier in the day.
What she explained next stopped me in my tracks. I forgot everything I had done all day, and just listened. She shared with me that, at my son's age, there's a certain level of innocence associated with most behaviors. Sure, there's always the possibility of something bad, she explained. For example, if he didn't do his reading, and faked the reading log, then it's clearly deception.
That evening, instead of heading straight home, we decided to go out together for a quick dinner at one of our favorite places. While we were waiting for food, I told me son that he wasn't in trouble, and that I had a couple questions. I brought out the picture above on my iPhone and asked him what each column was, starting with the date. Starting with the date, and for every column I pointed at, he said, "I don't know papa, I just know you have to do it."
He was trying to help me. The teacher had pointed out how well he did his reading that day, with pride over his improvement. He had clearly practiced. And in the midst of busyness or whatever, I neglected to review his homework and complete the reading log. So he did what he thought he needed to do: He put the same illegible scribbles down on the reading log that I had done each time.
He just wanted to help me.
When I realized this, I apologized to him. And I was clear to let him know that I was apologizing because I had jumped to a conclusion that morning about his reading log, assuming that he had done something wrong. I told him that I understood that he didn't, and why.
I also remembered what else the teacher had told me, earlier that day on our call: She pointed out that my reaction to him that morning wasn't bad, and it wasn't wrong. She pointed out that because of my reaction, which contrasted highly from my normal demeanor, he now knows how seriously I take something like forgery - or for that matter anything bad - even if he doesn't yet understand the context yet. He knows how I feel. She pointed out how that can never be a bad thing, as long as it's rooted in honesty. His moral compass is developing and anchoring on it's North point, and my behavior is the magnet he's tuning to.
Still, something about this really bugs me. I remember learning about a concept in social psychology called the Fundamental Attribution Error, which claims that people have a tendency to judge other peoples behaviors by placing undue emphasis on character or intention rather than examining all the external factors. Ignoring things like information, knowledge, and facts. Recently I thought, as I'm more than halfway through the average life expectancy, I'm beyond this. I know better. I'm better than that. I'm more mature.
And yet I did it, immediately jumping to conclusions about my son because of my experience (Things I shouldn't have done, at places and times I shouldn't have done them), my passion as a parent (I want him to grow up to be a good and honest person) and my limited knowledge (about the prevailing innocence of a six year old, and how to validate that).
In my continuing education as a dad, I learned a valuable lesson. No matter what, always listen. The teachers know more than you. It's their practice and profession. And above all else, it's always OK to make a mistake, but it's always better to make a mistake being kind. I think in the long run, that's what my son will remember and carry with him.